- Hugo Chávez Plays Simón SaysDemocracy without opposition in Venezuela
Not long after his unsuccessful February 1992 coup attempt in Venezuela, probably while still in jail, Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías learned the most valuable lesson of his life: he might have failed to overthrow the government, but there was no need for an encore. Why attempt another coup, with all its risks and negative connotations, when he could accomplish the same objectives by running in a democratic election? Coups were for atavistic Latin American caudillos. Modern, forward-looking, internationally respected Latin American politicians, Chávez was told, run for office.
Running for office did not seem like such a bad idea, after all. Polls following the failed coup showed that Chávez had become a sort of folk hero. Even Senator-for-Life Rafael Caldera, himself a former president (1969–74) and leader of the opposition, famously proclaimed the coup “understandable” before the Congress in 1992. Venezuelans were sick of politicians, who for fifteen years had not reversed the country’s economic decline. Caldera was actually sick of waiting to return to office—hence his sympathies with Chávez. The country was ready for a savior, or at least for someone with a big broom to sweep those in power away.
So Chávez never contemplated another coup. He reasoned that as long as he intensified his antiestablishment, anti-political party discourse—as many other Latin American presidents in the 1990s had done prior to getting elected—the masses would follow him straight to the polls.
And the masses did follow. In December 1998 Chávez was elected president of Venezuela. He defeated a former Miss Universe and a technocratically competent governor, proving that he did not owe his victory to good looks or good experience. But Chávez’s triumph, however impressive, was not absolute. Forty-four percent of the electorate voted against him. The traditional political parties, Acción Democrática and Copei, which Chávez had hoped to decimate, did not fare badly: together they won 32 percent of the seats in the Congress and two-thirds of the governorships. A new party, Proyecto Venezuela, won about 12 percent of the seats in the Congress. Although Chávez had power, he also had opponents, who like him had gained access to state office through elections. The masses followed, but not in hordes. [End Page 38]
The size and institutional presence of the opposition were real inconveniences. Chávez had never claimed to be interested in what the French call “cohabitation.” He had wanted a revolution. What was he to do with the opposition?
Chávez spent most of his first year in office figuring out how to undermine the opposition. He largely succeeded. He deflated the power of most previous institutions and opposition forces capable of restraining him. He has not suspended any liberties in this “peaceful revolution.” But by deflating the opposition, Chávez deflated democracy in Venezuela. Here is how he did it.
Excerpts from a leaflet distributed in the streets of Caracas, February-March 1992, shortly after Chávez’s attempted coup: “The Bolivarian Military Movement seeks, through this document, to challenge the smear campaign that has been launched against us.”
From the outset Chávez’s movement has been suspicious of critics. Chávez is an odd soldier that way. Soldiers are supposed to feel comfortable with criticism, especially from those they serve. But Chávez was never a regular soldier. He was [End Page 39] an insubordinate soldier, one who staged a coup or, as he prefers to call it, a “military rebellion.” Insubordinates, by definition, do not like to be the targets of criticism.
As president, Chávez has been openly disdainful of his critics. Major sections of his long, numerous speeches are devoted to criticizing his critics. Chávez does not necessarily respond to them by addressing their arguments, but by hurling insults at them. He has even created a special agency dedicated “to challenging the smear campaign” carried out “against Venezuela” by the foreign press.
Chávez’s aversion to criticism was probably charming—maybe even healthy—when he lacked power. But...